Now that gas prices have topped $4 per gallon, Congress finally seems ready to give Amtrak a reliable future. But should they? Is city-to-city passenger rail travel relevant to today’s Americans?

Last year, Amtrak ridership topped 25.8 million, a 12 percent increase, with $1.5 billion in passenger revenue.

I guess that means a few people think rail travel is relevant, but President Bush doesn’t agree. He tried to put Amtrak out of business a year ago and is prepared to veto new Amtrak funding legislation. A battle is brewing in Washington, and Congress, which appears ready to pump almost $15 billion into Amtrak, is prepared to override the veto.

Relative to other modes of transportation, train travel is “green.” According to a study by the Sightline Institute, the average carbon dioxide emitted per passenger-mile from a train is 0.23 pounds. That compares to 1.0 for airplanes and 1.2 for automobiles. What’s more, the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics reports that in 2005 the energy consumption per passenger-mile of trains was 2,100 BTUs, 3,200 for airplanes and 3,500 for cars, despite the fact that Amtrak still uses mostly diesel technology outside the Northeast Corridor.

I’m a regular on Amtrak from Philadelphia to New York, Boston and Washington. When you add up the time waiting in an airport, waiting on the runway, claiming luggage and traveling from center city to the airport, Amtrak can get me to these cities in about the same or less time than the airlines.

And imagine how much quicker that would be if Acela, which averages 72 mph between Washington and Boston, could zip along as fast as France’s TGV, which typically travels at 200 mph.

Acela can’t travel consistently at its top commercial-use speed of 150 mph because most of the track it uses can’t handle it. It can only achieve that speed on two segments of track totaling a whopping 18 miles on a stretch between Providence and Boston.

Are our legislators truly attempting to make Amtrak a viable travel alternative? Are they giving it enough money, or a financial Band Aid?

The Baltimore Sun points out that the 19th Century train tunnels under Baltimore Harbor need at least $1 billion alone to bring them up to today’s standards. That’s just one of many choke points at Amtrak needing substantive, expensive work. Amtrak inherited an aging, neglected patchwork of rail systems from bankrupt railroads, and has never been adequately funded to bring the system up to European standards, to which it is constantly compared by a whinging Bush Administration.

Thrown into the House bill is a requirement for the Department of Transportation to seek proposals from private companies to create a high-speed service that would take travelers from Washington to New York in two hours or less.

The problem is their proposal would take away Amtrak’s most valuable asset, Acela. I believe the proposal is the Republican’s last ditch effort to pick apart Amtrak into irretrievable failure. Acela accounts for 3.1 million riders, 12 percent of total ridership and 26 percent of Amtrak’s total passenger revenue.

House Republicans led by John Mica say the US must catch up with European and Asian high-speed rail travel. Years ago, former Amtrak president David Gunn told Congress bluntly, “If you really want a super-zippy train from Washington to New York, you have to build another railroad.” It looks like the Republicans, who shoved him out the door, are finally listening.

Instead of funding Amtrak to do its job, they are attempting to create a new inefficient piecemeal rail operation.

Washington needs to take a hard look at creating a viable national railroad that is properly funded. Other developed nations are light years ahead of us while our government continues to bicker over funding a solution that is, in the long run, cost-effective and environmentally friendly.